Joyene Isaacs has been head of the Western Cape’s de­part­ment of agri­cul­ture since 2010. Her clean au­dits, pas­sion for farm­ing and com­mit­ment to trans­for­ma­tion saw her de­part­ment re­cently de­clared con­sis­tently the best in SA, writes

CityPress - - Business -

Joyene Isaacs pulses into a room, her en­ergy and firm, friendly, nonon­sense voice en­velop all she meets. Within min­utes, she’s dis­cussing the im­por­tance of chang­ing the neg­a­tive im­age of farm­ers por­trayed by the me­dia.

“They’re seen as white men in khaki who’ve stolen our land,” she says.

“But black farm­ers now wear khaki too. I want young, black peo­ple to see agri­cul­ture as an op­por­tu­nity and not to be em­bar­rassed – as some are – to work in this sec­tor,” she says forthrightly.

She’s part of an ini­tia­tive to change the term “farm work­ers” to “agri­work­ers” in or­der to coun­ter­act neg­a­tive per­cep­tions of the for­mer.

How­ever, Isaacs is about much more than per­cep­tions. She’s had more than 20 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in agri­cul­tural de­vel­op­ment across gov­ern­ment, non­govern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tions and in the pri­vate sec­tor.

In a four-year pe­riod from Novem­ber 2005, when she was made chief di­rec­tor of farmer sup­port and de­vel­op­ment, she in­creased her bud­get from R7 mil­lion to R70 mil­lion. In that time, her staff grew from seven to about 180.

At the same time, she was made act­ing head of the prov­ince’s agri­cul­tural de­part­ment and took on the re­spon­si­bil­ity of man­ag­ing more than 800 staff mem­bers work­ing on seven pro­grammes.

She worked day and night.

“It took me three years to stop work­ing ev­ery sin­gle week­end,” she says in her cig­a­rette-raspy voice.

No won­der then that, in March 2006, she was made head of agri­cul­ture on a four-year con­tract.

It was ex­tended from 2010 to 2015, when it was again ex­tended – to 2020.

Part­ner­ship ar­range­ments with the pri­vate sec­tor and black farm­ers have flour­ished un­der her lead­er­ship in com­modi­ties rang­ing from wine grapes to veg­eta­bles, wool and beef.

Forty-four men­tors have pro­vided sup­port to small­holder farm­ers and the agri­cul­tural sec­tor has helped to stim­u­late eco­nomic growth in the Western Cape.

In­te­gral to the suc­cess of Isaacs’ de­part­ment has been her whole­hearted em­brace of in­no­va­tion and cut­tingedge re­search. The

Busi­ness tip: Men­tors: Books: In­spi­ra­tion: Wow! mo­ment: Life les­son:

en­tire agri­cul­tural sec­tor in the Western Cape has been spa­tially mapped through a land-use sur­vey called Fly­over. “We learnt about it from Gaut­eng and Mpumalanga and then we de­cided to ex­tend its use. I can sit in my of­fice and call up in­for­ma­tion on just how many wine cel­lars, pig­geries, abat­toirs and so on there are in the whole of the Western Cape.” Seven years ago, Isaacs’ de­part­ment also in­tro­duced a dig­i­tal smart pen sys­tem, which is linked to Fly­over. “This pen, which uses Nasa tech­nol­ogy, al­lows ex­ten­sion of­fi­cers, who dis­trib­ute agri­cul­tural in­for­ma­tion to ru­ral farm­ers, to scan a farm’s num­ber and then send rel­e­vant data to our de­part­ment,” says Isaacs. “All prov­inces have smart pens, but the av­er­age use is about 60%. Ours is 100%.” Isaacs’ de­part­ment wrote up a case study of how tech­nol­ogy was help­ing farm­ers. It was sent to the UN Food and Agri­cul­ture Or­gan­i­sa­tion, “be­cause we thought that de­vel­op­ing coun­tries would be in­ter­ested in it”. To Isaacs’ amaze­ment, it was de­vel­oped coun­tries, such as Swe­den, that con­tacted her. “They were fas­ci­nated by our use of Fly­over, smart pens and a nor­mal cell­phone for our work.” Her de­part­ment’s in­no­va­tive ap­proach in­cludes in­ves­ti­gat­ing the ef­fects of cli­mate change on farm­lands and ap­point­ing so­cial work­ers to help farm­ers and their agri­work­ers sort out prob­lems. Isaacs was born, raised and still lives in the same house in the vil­lage of Jamestown near Stel­len­bosch. As a child, she helped her par­ents grow straw­ber­ries, flow­ers and seedlings on their plot. Isaacs’ dream was to be a mi­cro­bi­ol­o­gist, but, ow­ing to her race, she was not ac­cepted at Stel­len­bosch Uni­ver­sity. She ob­tained a BSc hon­ours in plant pathol­ogy and plant pro­tec­tion at the Uni­ver­sity of the Western Cape in 1986. A stint work­ing with poor re­source farm­ers in KwaZu­luNatal re­vealed her pas­sion for agri­cul­ture. She’s a worka­holic who strug­gles to re­lax, but en­joys eat­ing out and loves to travel when she’s not tak­ing care of her fam­ily.

Do you feel em­bar­rassed about the agri­cul­tural sec­tor? Or does Joyene Isaacs give you hope?

SMS us on 35697 us­ing the key­word FARM and tell us what you think. In­clude your name and prov­ince. SMSes cost R1.50

IN­SPIRED Joyene Isaacs, head of Western Cape agri­cul­ture

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